From a match on the road to the shops to champions

2012-03-17 14:58

How much can you possibly know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight? asked Tyler Darden, the spectacularly nihilistic character in Fight Club, the Hollywood blockbuster directed by David Fincher.

That perhaps has been the most important question in every man’s life. Every culture has at some point in its evolution inaugurated fight games to help boys become men worthy of that title.

In South Africa, the implication has been that we’ve produced most of our quality boxers from those areas that still practice traditional initiation rites.

Limpopo and Eastern Cape, where young men still go to mountain schools to earn their mettle as men, stand head and shoulders above the rest.

They are contested only by Gauteng as a breeding ground for great fighting men. For the traditional Xhosa and Bapedi initiation rites, stick fighting has been the preferred martial arts of choice for initiates on the mountain.

The Venda people have recently come under the spotlight for the resurgence of Musangwe, a yearly cultural event where young men engage in a brutal bare-knuckle fighting spectacle.

It makes sense that many culture’s initiation rites have some sort of combat art as an ingredient. The ancient Greeks had their wrestling and the Romans too had their gladiators. The fight game is how we simulate, at least for young men, a metaphor for all of a grown man’s life challenges.

All the pain and loss that life will surely visit upon them, all the temptations and allures of giving up when growing pains take their toll are concentrated in that glorious moment of the fight.

Even the thrill of overcoming one’s personal limitations can be gleaned at first hand by boys going toe-to-toe and knuckle-for-knuckle.

In On Boxing, the classic book on the sport, Joyce Carol Oates contends that: “Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity, all the more trenchant for being lost.”

The Venda town of Thohoyandou gave us Phillip Ndou who held titles in the featherweight and welterweight. Then there is Joseph Makaringe, the former IBO welterweight champion and Cassius Baloyi, the six-time world champion who both come from Giyani.

Welcome Ncita – that brilliant IBF Super Bantamweight champion – comes out of Mdantsane among the Xhosa, filling in the shoes of Nkosana “Happyboy” Mgxaji, Mdantsane’s first great boxing hero.

Mgxaji was a trailblazer who certainly knew how to stick fight on his way to being a man.

You’ll be hard-pressed to explain why we haven’t produced the same quality of boxers from among the Khoisan community. The Batswana too in North West haven’t produced many boxers.

Norman “Pangaman” Sekgapane provides just about the only exception. “Pangaman” fought as a professional boxer from 1970 to 1980.

He was undoubtedly one of the best junior welterweights. However, he stood out in a province that doesn’t have much of a fight culture.

Is it because the Batswana abolished their male initiation rites, and with it their taste for the sweet science of bruising?

In Colour Bar, her biography of the first president of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama, Susan Williams writes that the ritual was abolished in 1902.

Of course, areas like Soweto have also produced first-class pugilists far from mountain schools. Arthur Maisela, Dingaan Thobela or Baby Jake Matlala didn’t learn their slugging in the bush.

This is simply because the asphalt labyrinths and concrete jungles of our urban experiences have transposed ancient martial rites of passage into street culture.

Every young boy has at some point met his match on the road to the shops or at the play ground.

This is the same system that makes it possible for all of us to qualify Eastern Cape-born pugilist, Vuyani Bungu’s name with “The Beast”. It’s a simple mathematics.

Ving Rhames said it best in Undisputed, the boxing movie: “People love a guy who can fight, and don’t take shit.”

I contend that our traditional rites of passage are where we manufacture these loved heroes.

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